The stately arrival of the infrastructure bill seems to be our country’s Waiting for Godot moment — but is it going to move the needle in making our country great? Infrastructure is not simply roads and bridges, or wastewater treatment plants, or natural gas pipelines, or high-speed internet. To be sure, it is all of those things, but more importantly, when our citizens think about infrastructure, they are thinking of results, of benefits. They are thinking of health and mobility and opportunity — that greatness in all of those things underpinning and enabling what John Locke called “the honest industry of mankind.”
But it is Congress — those 535 CEOs of political lands throughout our country — that has an outsized role to play in building a far-seeing national consensus on infrastructure, and it is Congress that needs to harness the aspirations of their citizens to make that happen.
Congress needs to seize the infrastructure moment: Infrastructure is long-term, close to the action and involves Congress’ key power — spending. How can Congress seize this moment?
Before we get to that point, let’s clarify the issue.
Because we no longer have the appetite for increased taxes, we are moving from a system of publicly funded infrastructure, overseen by congressional mandate, to a system that is increasingly funded by the private sector, overseen by the executive office(?) In terms of the structure of our government, nobody made this decision, and it will not work; Congress needs to be intimately involved in any increase in the role of the private sector — otherwise, we the people will instinctively shy away.
And don’t kid yourselves, the only way to increase infrastructure investment is through increasing access of private monies to infrastructure investment opportunities. We may tell ourselves that we are at a tipping point, but one public-private partnership (P3) was closed in the U.S. last year, and the percentage of GDP invested in infrastructure — 1.4 percent, not the 3 percent of our fathers and grandfathers — is at an all-time low.
So, what do we do? What does Congress do?
First, Congress needs to seize this implicit moment of bipartisan magic and support an infrastructure bill that delivers a new, long-term vision for the country, one that will guide us through the next 15-20 years. In a recent survey that we conducted for our Blueprint 2025 initiative, 73 percent of industry respondents said vision was “very important” to the success of an infrastructure initiative, and only 53 percent cited finance as “very important.” Vision not only tells us where we are going, it gives our leadership the authority to take us there.
Second, Congress needs to recognize that the “public works” machinery and focus of our government and its committees is outdated and must be reformed. Infrastructure lasts for 30-40 years, and in the context of the rapidly changing, technology-driven global economy, it is either strategic — or immediately outdated.
At least two things need to happen. We need a consolidated infrastructure budget for our country — how is it that we talk about “infrastructure,” but there is no infrastructure budget or department of infrastructure? And we need people thinking in these terms — infrastructure as strategy rather than potentially attainable pork.
We also should think of new institutions that are explicitly bipartisan — like an infrastructure bank, with directors appointed by Congress chartered to focus on critical failures in the infrastructure market; like funding priority projects that can’t attract the private sector; or rural projects (bridges, broadband, wastewater) that are critical to the kind of country we want to build.
The important point here is that from the voters’ perspective this is the job of Congress — they have the standing, the accountability, the close-to-the-bone reality and … the power.
Third, Congress needs to move to a new conceptual level if it is going to lead on infrastructure. The benefits of infrastructure — health, mobility, new business, job creation, manufacturing, a robust tax base — are what voters charge their elected representatives to create for them. These are local, visceral, tactile benefits that emerge powerfully from both local and national projects. In a recent study that we produced with Boston Consulting Group (BCG), we showed that just 60 strategic projects created benefits in more than 50 percent of congressional districts. That is an astonishing fact — the goods for those projects are manufactured all over the U.S. Congress needs to not only really care about infrastructure benefits, but also the manufacturing jobs that are created across the U.S. Congress needs to focus like a laser on the benefits of infrastructure projects, score them, and make sure that they are optimized.
Last week, I was in Denver speaking with the leadership of a top-tier regional engineering and construction firm — one of those firms that are the lifeblood of local communities because they are identifying, designing and building projects for our children and our grandchildren. These firms are disappearing because of our lack of infrastructure investment.
Without vision, the people perish. With vision, Congress can create this generation’s equivalent of the 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, harnessing our imaginations to the will of our citizens, in recreating the greatest infrastructure country on Earth.
• Norman F. Anderson is the Founder and CEO of CG/LA Infrastructure, a global infrastructure strategy firm. He is the founder of Blueprint 2025, a 100 CEO initiative to build the next generation of U.S. infrastructure. He is a member of the World Economic Forum and a regular contributor to CNBC and Fox Business News. Follow him on Twitter @anderson_norman.
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.